Princeville, N.C. Mary and Roosevelt Ricks fled their rented home in the cab of an 18-wheeler, the only vehicle tall enough to plow through the Tar River as it flooded over its banks.
As the rain kept falling and the river kept rising, Mary Ricks stayed optimistic and cheerful. Now, a year after the deluge caused by Hurricane Floyd chased away most of the residents of Princeville, she finally has reason to smile.
"I'm so excited," she said as a Habitat for Humanity crew worked on a new house that she and her husband will own. "It's home. To me, it's a mansion."
The Ricks are in the vanguard of recovery in this poor town, founded by freed slaves after the Civil War.
Princeville was one of the worst hit towns when Floyd dropped as much as 20 inches of rain on Sept. 16, 1999. By the time it reached Virginia the next day, it had caused $6 billion in damage and 52 deaths in North Carolina.
Princeville, 62 miles east of Raleigh and home to 2,100 people, was accessible only by boat, and roof peaks jutting from the water the only sign of dwellings. Ninety percent of its buildings were submerged in 23 feet of water.
The flood destroyed or damaged 1,183 houses, apartments and mobile homes. Only seven houses were covered by flood insurance. Refugees moved into trailers, campers and the houses of friends and relatives.
Today, only 415 families are back in their houses or nearly so. Others are still living in government-provided campers while work is completed on replacements.
Dorothy Hanley was one of the lucky few with flood insurance, augmented by personal savings. She has been in a new house in the town's center since January.
"It's a slow process," Hanley said outside her new house, in sight of the river, as traffic bustled past. "If I didn't have the personal money, we would still be living in a FEMA trailer. We felt safer here than in the trailer park."
In the first six months after Floyd, town leaders debated whether to rebuild or just let the government buy up flooded property and tear down the houses. Once they decided to rebuild, money became the problem; state and federal agencies promised millions but the bureaucracy moved slowly.
A year later, building contractors are busy throughout town. The government also is building two new trailer parks that eventually will house 126 families; by the end of August, 15 families had moved in.
The pace quickened after the Federal Emergency Management Agency opened a temporary office in the town, said town zoning and planning administrator Sam Knight.
"We were inexperienced at anything of this magnitude, so we were touchy-feely for a while," Knight said. "We're still going in areas we're not familiar with."
Knight said the town may be fully restored in three to four years and "the average citizen is going to be living in a better dwelling than they were before the flood. I'm smiling because I see a town on the rise."
A Habitat for Humanity crew, made up of members of a Charlotte church and a local high school class, hammered and sawed in late August to finish Mary Ricks' elevated house. It stands across the street from the house Ricks' mother occupied before her death; her sister lives there now.
She bought the lot with $3,500 from savings and some gift money. She will pay Habitat about $267, plus insurance, per month for the $45,000 house. The loan is interest-free, allowing her to consider buying a neighboring lot in case her children want to come home someday.
"It seems like we got more than we had before," she said. "We're buying a house. I've got a new car. We lost everything, but we got it back and more."